Fate of the Fishes
The tale of the fish: The Cordell Banks west of Bodega Bay are a rich resource, locals say, but stringent state and federal regulations–along with claims that the stock is being overfished–are making life harder for commercial fishermen like John Salerno (above), for whom the regulations are “a big fuck job.”
Regulations may be killing the local fishing industry; but is the industry itself killing the resource?
By Stephanie Hiller
EARL CARPENTER is not going salmon fishing these days. Warm ocean currents have taken a toll on the salmon population on the central coast. The fish have moved north, to colder waters; but up north, the fishing season hasn’t opened yet. “If we didn’t have the fishing regulations, most of the boats would be up in Northern California where the feed is,” says Carpenter, a longtime Bodega Bay resident. “But they’ve got us pretty locked in now.”
Carpenter, 69, is standing on his weathered boat, the Annabelle, twisting a piece of twine in his scarred fingers while he talks. He’s doing a little work on his boat today before going out to pull in a few crab pots. He’s been a fisherman since he graduated from grade school in ’41, when his father moved the family down here from the Pacific Northwest.
“Up in Oregon,” he recalls, “the wind blew
“Up in Oregon,” he recalls, “the wind blew so bad you had to pull the boats up out of the water every night.”
The safe harbor of Bodega Bay was just opening up for crab fishing at the time. When the crab season ended, there were salmon all summer long. New salmon trollers were outfitted with stainless steel lines, thanks to wartime technology, and lots of newcomers were joining the fleet. “All the veterans came back pretty disgusted at the world,” Carpenter says, “so they thought fishing would be perfect for them.” There were plenty of fish processing plants all up the coast, most of them family operations.
In those good ‘ol days, fish were plentiful and restrictions few. “In my time, the season used to be from May 1 to the end of September,” Carpenter says.
Sacramento River King salmon (Chinook) were the industry’s main staple, along with some silver salmon (coho) from the Russian River.
Carpenter raised his two sons to be fishermen. They did well enough, he says, supporting their own families. But their children will not be going fishing. “They’re in college where they belong,” says Carpenter, noting that very few young people are joining the fleet. “Used to be, you could start out with a little boat, and if you were tough enough, and worked hard enough, well, you could get a bigger boat. You could make it.”
Today, permits alone are often prohibitively expensive. You just can’t get started unless you have the money.
“There’s no future in it,” he says.
SPORTS FISHERMAN Mike Malone also is worried. From where he sits, he’s become convinced that the last great California fishery is about to meet its demise. “In the mid-’80s, we were catching four or five hundred pounds of rockfish out of Bodega Head with a hook and line,” he says, taking a bite out of his stack of pancakes at the Pine Grove Restaurant in Sebastopol. “Then the longliners came on, and the fish were gone!”
A geologist by profession and an avid sports fisherman, Malone spends most of his spare time as a volunteer activist working with United Anglers to preserve the fishery. For him, fishing is a sport, but commercial fishermen have been part of his life since boyhood. “They were my heroes!” he says, with a good-humored smile and a James Stewart chuckle about a situation he takes very seriously. He tried his hand at commercial fishing himself, but gave it up when he saw the stocks go down.”When there aren’t very many fish, what do the fishermen do?” he asks. “They fish harder! And I understand that. They’ve got to pay the bills. But I’m not sure it’s good for the resource.”
Malone does not want to get embroiled in the argument between the sports anglers and the commercial fishermen that has long plagued the debate about fisheries management, with each side accusing the other of taking more than its fair share.
“I look at this as a resources issue,” he says.
Without the fish, after all, there’s no fishing for anyone.
FISH, the Seafood Council is happy to remind us, is a healthy food, low in cholesterol, high in nutritious omega-3 oils. Fish used to be inexpensive as well as salubrious. Now the cost of ordinary fish fillets rival that of steak, and year after year the price goes up.
A relatively new fishery, rockfish, or ground fish, comprises the majority of the fish fillets we commonly find at the supermarket, including the staple red snapper, which is actually a market term for a number of rockfish with red coloration.
Unlike salmon, which range hundreds of miles from the ocean to the inland freshwater streams to spawn, ground fish are fairly sedentary characters who, like old sages, prefer to remain at home in their caves in the ocean deep. They do not pursue their prey but simply wait for it to pass their doors. In their supreme patience, they seem to get by when food is scarce. They are unusually long-lived, with some species known to exceed 100 years.
Until fishermen found ways to penetrate the ocean’s depths, predators at the bottom of the sea were rare. Now, relatively new techniques have shattered the agreeable silence once enjoyed by the bocaccios, the yellowtails, and their neighbors, the ling cod. Drag boats comb the ocean floor with huge nets, picking up everything they encounter along the way, landing as many as 100,000 pounds of fish in one trip. But the method is so indiscriminate–sweeping in sea mammals along with the occasional boulder and old rubber tire–that it has been outlawed within three miles of the coast.
“It’s just like plowing a field,” says former drag fisherman Charlie Ford. “It turns everything upside down and throws it in the net–pieces of coral, a lot of fish you can’t use. It’s a real destructive method.”
Fish and Game biologist John Mello points out that the dragnets may be destroying valuable habitat for other species that live at the bottom of the sea. When the draggers were pushed far offshore in the 1980s, the long line was developed as an alternative by some clever Vietnamese fishermen. Literally a long fishing line with a thousand baited hooks, it is pulled along the ocean bottom, luring the fish from the safety of their nooks and crannies in the rocky reef. Long lines are cleaner than the nets and highly efficient. Using smaller boats than the draggers do, longliners can land 10,000 pounds of fish in a day.
All this activity has its effect on the fish. Up and down the coast, some species of rockfish are starting to bottom out. The Cordell Bank off Bodega Bay, where longliners and recreational party boats compete for fish, “is quite a lush fishing ground,” says Mello, who works out at the bay. “It receives an awful lot of fishing pressure.”
Says Malone, “The fish are just not there.”
According to Larry Six, executive director of the coastwide Portland-based Pacific Fishery Management Council, “The declining populations of some ground fish strain our capability to provide a year-round fishery. We are not seeing a strong recruitment of young fish.”
As a result, five fish were placed under significant restrictions last year: ling cod, bocaccio, sable fish, yellowtails, and thornyheads. According to some reports, bocaccio, which appears at the market as red snapper, has dropped 80 percent in the last decade. Fishing bocaccio up and down the coast has been strictly limited this year.
But Pete Leibzig, head of the Eureka Fishermen’s Marketing Association for ground fish, says the assessments are wrong. “These fish had not been fished until the 1970s,” he says. “If you tell me the population has dropped in the past 20 years, I will tell you I am not surprised. Fishermen will tell you they don’t see any change. They’ve been out on the sea for years; they see the fish. It’s anecdotal information, but it’s very important, and I think its value is underestimated.
“When the computer printout is very inconsistent with what the fishermen see, I think you should take a look at your computer model.”
Fishermen have a great interest in protecting the resource, and “we hope they’re in [fishing] for the long term,” says Deb Wilson, a Monterey biologist who keeps tabs on the recreational fishery. “But with overcapitalization, that may not be the case.”
THESE DAYS, fishing has gone high-tech, and the equipment is expensive. It’s also devastatingly effective. “The fish have nowhere to hide,” says Tom Moore, head of the Bodega Bay Fish and Game research facility. Sonar sensors placed on the dragnets send images to a computer screen on board the boat.
“It’s like a video game,” says Moore. “Fishermen can see exactly where the fish are and scoop up the entire school. It becomes a kind of a Catch-22. Now the fishermen have to fish that much harder to pay for the sonar. Rising expenses of licenses as well as gear make it harder and harder for them to own their own boats.
“A lot of skippers don’t own their boats,” adds Moore. “The boat may be owned by the fishing processor. He’s telling the skipper, I want so many pounds of this fish and so many pounds of that. If the skipper doesn’t bring that much in, the owner will get a new skipper.
And the processor is the one making the lion’s share of the profits. The fishermen earn 50 to 80 cents a pound for fish that may cost $6 at the store.
“Every year fewer boats can catch the same amount of fish,” Moore continues. “Do you manage the fishery biologically or for economics? The federal Magnuson Act says manage for both. Tough!”
And the supply, adds Moore, is going down–no question. “1989 was the peak year of world fishery. Production will be declining from that point from now on. Nothing you can do about it.”
Assessing the health of particular fish stocks is complicated by the number of agencies assigned to regulate them. The National Marine Fisheries Service recently took over the management of the ground fish in the offshore area, three miles off the coast. Commercial fishing within three miles is managed by the California’s Department of Fish and Game. But the recreational, or sports, fishery is overseen by an entirely different agency, the state Fish and Game Commission.
All agree that monitoring the health of the fish populations is a tough call. “I think we’re seeing a decline in fish,” says Wilson, “and that means we’re going to have to make some tough decisions. But it’s very difficult to assess what the resources are.”
Says Pete Glock of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, “We don’t have the information. It’s a real problem. Some of these fish are a mile deep.”
Fish and Game biologist L. B. Boydstun echoes their lament, speaking of the “administrative difficulty of managing these fisheries, assuming we could understand the situation. What’s missing here is definitive biological information.” And, says Wilson, that information, in the form of unbiased studies that do not rely on the fishermen, is very expensive.
With state budget cutbacks of 60 percent over the past decade, the department finds itself too understaffed and underfunded to produce the necessary scientific studies. Meanwhile, the fishing continues. “We see this problem over and over again,” says Mello. “A stock will be fished and we don’t have the records on which to base management policy.”
While biologists try to gather hard data, he adds, the fishery gets wiped out. “We’re trying to turn that around,” Mello explains.
In Alaska, when a new fishery is developed, regulators limit the catch at the outset and observe the results before heavy fishing is allowed. A bill before the California Legislature includes recommendations for that type of precautionary management.
But it may be too late for rockfish, which are threatened not only offshore but in the kelp beds that fringe the Sonoma County coastline. These inshore rockfish species constitute the live fishery, which meets the growing demand of the Asian market for fish 1 to 3 feet long, for which it pays handsomely. Instead of getting 80 cents or a dollar a pound for the bigger offshore varieties, fishers can earn as much as $5 a pound for the live fish. Fishermen use small boats and a simple line made of PVC pipe with about a dozen hooks attached to it.
“I only need 100 to 150 pounds a day,” says Charlie Ford, who, at 42, calls himself semi-retired. Ford says most of the fish he takes are 12 inches long and “don’t get any bigger”–in other words, they’re mature.
But Fish and Game biologist Tom Moore says that “12 inches isn’t a magic number. We like cabezone to be bigger. At the same time, we’re trying not to double dip; taking pre-spawners and the fish that are the big spawners will do serious damage.”
If Ford is careful to let the little ones return to the ocean in good shape, other fishermen keep whatever they get, Moore says. “Some bring in 3- and 4-inch fish. If the market doesn’t want them, they’ll take them home and fry them in the wok.”
MEANWHILE, fishing in the near shore has been limited. Where once boats went in with 5,000 or 6,00
0 hooks, they are now limited to 150 and prohibited from weekend fishing. Those regulations will sunset in 1999, leaving the resource unprotected unless AB 1336, a bill proposed by state Sen. Mike Thompson, D-Sonoma County, is passed to renew them. “My fear is that we fished too long here before the regulations went in, and passed the threshold for the survival of some of these fish,” says Moore.
To the fishermen, regulations are onerous, creating tons of paperwork, adding costs, and putting their livelihoods at the disposal of political vicissitudes.
Says John Obertelli, a former welder turned commercial fisherman, “I thought fishing was the perfect getaway, out there on the sea by yourself. But I’ve never seen a business more regulated than fishing.”
John Salerno, manager of Eureka Fisheries in Bodega Bay (which sells the fish to markets) agrees: “It’s a big fuck job. The drag boats are on quotas–so many pounds of this, so many pounds of that. Say they’re out fishing black cod. They have 1,500 pounds of those they can get. If, in the meantime, they get short spine and they’ve already filled their quota on that, they have to throw them over.
“If I buy too many fish, I get a fine and the fisherman gets a fine, too. But they don’t care if the fishermen throw away a million pounds at sea, because that’s not landed. The state says you can’t throw it away inside the three-mile limit, but the fed says you can throw it way outside the three-mile limit!”
That means a lot of wasted–and very dead–fish, since those fish packed together in huge dragnets do not survive. Many types of rockfish also have air bladders that explode when the fish are brought up. All the fish that exceed the quota are wasted. Fishermen, both commercial and sports, decry this waste, an outcome of a quota system they say is a major factor in the decline of the fisheries.
Obertelli suggests that the wasted bycatch be given instead to charity and the fishermen allowed a tax credit. “Fish and Game would have a better record of them, too,” he says.
As it is now, nobody knows how many fish are thrown away. Moore says the National Marine Fisheries Service has been mandated to do something about the bycatch, and is making moves to do so.
It would certainly help to get all the fishermen, commercial and recreational, on the same side of the resource. Currently, commercial regulation must be approved by the Legislature, a cumbersome process. By contrast, the Fish and Game Commission, composed of fishermen, is able to act quickly to regulate sports fishing. A new law (AB 1241) proposed by state Sen. Keeley, D-Santa Cruz, would establish a single management body for both commercial and sports fishing. For Mike Malone, this is the necessary first step to saving the fish.
“We’ve seen that the fishing industry is pretty much in crisis and are trying to rethink how we manage it,” says Assemblywoman Virginia Strom-Martin, who will be chairing the Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture next year. “The Keeley bill takes a holistic view of fisheries management.”
BUT IF YOU ASK the salmon fishermen, regulations are not the answer. Season closures and other restrictions have done little to address the problem for salmon, according to Chuck Wise, head of the Fisherman’s Marketing Association for Bodega Bay and one of the directors of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associa-tions.
“Some people would argue closure of the North Coast in California has not resulted in any fish populations coming back,” says Wise. “But it has ruined an industry. Fort Bragg, Eureka, Crescent City have no fishery at all anymore.”
Because salmon is an ocean fish that goes up the rivers to spawn, protecting this resource is very complex. “With the salmon, you have to talk about one river system at a time,” says Wise. Despite an increased population of Sacramento Chinook, the season has been reduced to protect the Klamath River salmon.
That’s frustrating for fishermen, says Wise, because it’s not fishing that has ruined the Klamath run: it’s the dams. The fish can’t get back up the river to the hatcheries to spawn. “You no longer have rivers. You have a series of lakes. There are 1,000 dams in that habitat drainage system on the Columbia River,” Wise says.
One human need has threatened another. Not the need for drinking water, but the need for hydroelectric power. “The Klamath run is never going to come back to where it was,” Wise contends.
Half the Klamath fish are given to the Native American tribes in Oregon. Some of the local fishermen object that the tribes are using gill nets in the rivers, further threatening habitat. Wise says the tribes “tend to catch less than what they’re credited with. They seem to be working on some sort of solution in this river.”
For Bodega Bay fisherman Earl Carpenter, who has been fishing these waters for 50 years, it’s federal management that has botched the job. “They have very few data and there’s no way of arguing ’em out of it.”
Carpenter believes that state Fish and Game has done a better job of fisheries management. But the impacts on salmon habitat may never be repaired. “You’ll never see any salmon in the mainstream of the San Joaquin River, but the tributaries are doing better.”
Some of the runs have recovered, fishermen report, with a record 500 spawners going back to the Sacramento River last year. Wise credits the rebounding fish populations to the contributions of the salmon fishermen themselves. “We tax ourselves to support the hatcheries,” he says. Carpenter cites the fishermen’s stamp program, a self-tax that goes to hatcheries and habitat restoration.
“And then we have a say about how it’s spent,” he says. “It gives us some clout.”
The return of the Chinook salmon is an encouraging sign that seems to indicate that when fishermen get involved, protection of the resource is more effective. Says Obertelli, “Once upon a time, fishermen were environmentally unconscious. But now they’re more educated about how interconnected everything is. It’s not rape and plunder.”
In his opinion, it’s not too late for recovery. “Resources can swing back.”
CARPENTER isn’t worrying about the rockfish. “They’re hard to catch. It’s hard to keep them alive.” He says people are in an uproar because the fishing is done close to shore where folks can see it. “And because most of the fishermen are Asian.”
He looks off in the distance as he talks, still holding onto the lighter he’s had in his palm for the past hour. He measures his words carefully, not wanting to offend anyone–the biologists he has worked with all these years, the sports fishers, or the other commercial fishermen. But the long pauses between his sentences reveal his sadness at the passing of a way of life that was good.
“I’ve been a fisherman all my life. That’s who I am. I’ve never regretted going fishing.” But for him, it’s over. He’s thinking about retirement.
“I just hate to leave the industry worse off than how I found it.”
From the July 16-22, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
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